Good Morning Vietnam!

On the road again!

After a long week of driving across Cambodia, it was nice for my feet to finally wade into the Gulf of Thailand.

We’d stopped off at Sihanoukville, a resort on the southern coastline which boasted beautifully soft white sands, blue sea and cheap beer. It was the perfect tonic after a long few days on the road, but a good opportunity to recharge batteries before more long drives to Vietnam in the next few days.

Much of the arrival day was spent in a beach bar, sipping cocktails, eating pizza and playing pool. The evenings were spent dining on the beach with yet more chicken amok and good company. Everyone has really clicked now on the tour, but the sad news is that theres quite a few leaving us in the next couple of days.

Dinner on the beach

In the meantime there were plenty of laughs – John the Aussie providing plenty of them, particularly when he was sent sprinting along the beach, chased by a Cambodian kid who was launching fireworks at him.

The next day was spent lounging around the pool, writing and uploading my blog and generally relaxing. I worked out it was the first day I’d had without any travelling, sightseeing or deadlines to meet for around two months, and I felt much better for it. It was nice to sit and do nothing for a change. It might sound strange, but travelling like this is very demanding and takes its toll – you are constantly on the go and always against time.

Dusty, sandy landscape turned into this

Rested up, and after six days working our way across Cambodia, it was time for some serious long-distance road trips to the next country on our list –Vietnam.

We left Sihanoukville early, destined for Chau Doc, a Vietnamese town just inside the border. It was a four hour journey to the border through lush green countryside and paddy fields. Along long stretches of the journey, farmers were drying rice along the side of the road. Children would wave as we passed through, spotting the Western faces smiling back through the windows.

A stop at some services a few hours into the drive brought the latest culinary discovery: the delightful sounding Special Flossy Pork.

Mmmmm!

 

Not happy with just taking a photograph of the odd foodstuff, at $1.50 it was worth buying just to give it a try. There were lots of ‘ughs’ and ‘yucks’ as the packaging was opened to reveal something that wouldn’t look out of place stuffed into a mattress. After teasing some apart – it had the consistency and feel of wool – I put it in my mouth.

Tasty flossy pork!

Its strangely good – so much so I had a bit more to make sure. It tasted a bit like bacon, but with the consistency of a Hessian sack until it works itself into a chewy lump. By now, others were interested – Ricky had a try and wasn’t a fan, while Canadian Alissa decided it was so good, she too needed second helpings.

I don’t think it will feature on a Gordon Ramsey menu anytime soon, but Special Flossy Pork is certainly something we’ll think twice about laughing at in the future!

We were still pulling strands of stringy pork from our teeth when we arrived at the Cambodia-Vietnam border, where we had to get off the bus, grab our bags and walk through no-mans land to the other side. Its always a strange feeling walking through a border – a few steps taking you from one country into another – but its my fourth such crossing in a month now and you get used to the practice.

Crossing the Cambodia/Vietnam border

A few Cambodian flags and a border control post marked the end of my stay in a fascinating country, while teams of police and dozens of red, star-emblazoned Vietnam flags marked the start of almost two weeks in this communist land.

Welcome to 'Nam!

It marked the start of a noticeable fascination with motorbikes in quite a spectacular way. There was a steady stream of riders making their way through the border having loaded an almost unbelievable amount onto two wheels. In some cases you could hear the tiny engine struggling with the weight, as the hapless rider struggled to keep balance. Many smiled as we took photographs of them. Their main load was empty rice sacks, heading back to the paddy fields and drying sites to be refilled.

Get the man a trailer!

It wasn’t long before the landscape changed again, and you could tell straight away that this was a richer and far more developed country. Its still poor by Western standards, but the wooden shacks changed into more developed, permanent buildings.

After a long day of travelling, we stopped for the night in Chau Doc, providing an opportunity to look around the local market and get our heads around yet another currency, with another comedy name. The Vietnamese Dong takes some getting used to – theres 32,000 of them to the pound, but most prices are worked out for comparison in US Dollars. Its my seventh currency to use within a month, and its taking its toll – I’m bad at maths anyway, but even buying a can of Coke results in a tough mental arithmetic test these days! I did become a double millionaire though – with yet another Deal or No Deal-style option list on the ATM screen, I took out two million Dongs – about £62.

Thankyou Mr Banker but...No Deal

It was another long slog to Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon to give it its historical name.

Waiting for the ferry

An eight our drive broken up by a few stops and a river crossing on a ferry. It was an interesting trip across the river, mainly dominated by an impromptu catwalk display from Asata, our American companion who went all New York on us with her struts up and down the top deck of the ship. Nobody quite knew why, or what prompted it, but it was entertaining all the same!

 

With John and Ricardo on the ferry

The ferry was full of locals, mainly attached to mopeds and scooters. They may be the transport of choice around here, but it was fun to watch them trying to brave the drop and gap over the water from the ship’s ramp onto the shore.

A few hours later we arrived in Saigon. For me it was my first major stop in the country, but for some it was the end of their trip. My 30-day tour is broken down into week-long sections, so for Aussie John, New Yorker Assata, Scottish Darren and Londoner Louise, the two days here would be the last we’d spend with them.

As we arrived late in the afternoon, there wasn’t chance to do much before dinner, so a few of us browsed around the local market. To get there you had to cross about four major roads. Normally, that’s not a problem, but when there’s no observed pedestrian crossings, and a city where motorbikes are the main transport for its population, crossing the road becomes an unnerving challenge for Westerners.

Help!

The advice we’d been given was not to look or listen, and to just walk across –  the general idea being that everyone else will see you and work around you by anticipating your walk. They get on their way, you reach the other side of the road.  The golden rule is not to stop, as that just confuses everyone and causes chaos.

Putting that into practice is not easy – it goes against everything you ever learnt with the Green Cross Code, and laughs in the face of almost every human instinct programmed into us to avoid instant death. But it seems to work.

Stepping into free-flowing motorbike traffic, flying past at up to 30 mph, is a strange feeling. Horns beep, occasionally people shout, but it’s the only way to cross roads. After a while you get used to it, the only unnerving part being on the odd occasion when you look up at dozens of faces and mopeds heading straight at you when you’re in the middle of the road. Somehow, and its down to millimetres at times, everything manages to miss you, and miss each other!

Two wheels rule the roads here!

We reached the market to find a lot of bargains – this is definitely the place to come for cheap clothes and labels, particularly if you need a new rucksack. North Face bags can be had for as little as a fiver, and they are not necessarily fake. I’m currently using one I got in Thailand earlier in the year, and its holding up very well and excellent quality. Many of the labelled goods are made in factories nearby, and the theory is that many of them with small imperfections, or even excess stock, gets released to the locals to sell on.

Farewell meal in Ho Chi Minh City

That night was changeover night, so we met our next tour buddies and had to give those leaving a good send-off. Two of them had become really good friends – fellow journo John from Australia, and London auction house valuer Louise.

With Verena (right) sending Louise (left) back home with a few vodkas!

Louise was only on a week long trip, but told me she’s reached a point where she wants to travel more, afraid she’d look back and regret not doing more. It’s a similar thought to my own, and it wasn’t the only thing we had in common – it turned out we were both at Southampton Institute together, and even in the same faculty group!

For three years, I was studying Journalism and Louise was studying Fine Arts Valuation, culminating in us both graduating on the same day and at the same ceremony. For much of those three years, we would have been in neighbouring classrooms, as many of our classes were in the same building. We probably passed each other many times in corridors, unaware that in ten years time the paths of our respective lives would cross again thousands of miles away from home.

Sending John back to Oz

John was also on a short trip, having had time off from work but unable to travel anywhere with his girlfriend at the same time. He’s one of life’s good guys, giving and taking great banter, able to lift a mood when its needed, and able to pull off some of the best impressions of people on the tour, including our lovely leader Fon. We knew we’d all miss the British/Australian banter, and we made sure we gave him a good send off. We ended up in some bars around Ho Chi Minh, watching a bit of live Premier League football between Manchester City and Newcastle, drinking cheap Saigon beer and having plenty of laughs.

So many, that my 5am arrival back at the hotel ensured my next day tour was written off, but it turned out that the following day had some great highlights.

John, Alissa and Ricky and respective cyclos!

With a raging hangover thirst, and the need for something other than rice or noodles, we headed to Pizza Hut. John pulled off some of the best impressions yet, that had Ricky, Alissa and I laughing so hard we were very nearly on the floor. Particularly funny was his line “I am not bus company,” referring to Fon’s explanation that we couldn’t be late for the bus as it wont wait for us. His breakdown of breakfast and pricing, complete with hand movements, was exceptional.

Hangovers cleared, we needed to get to the war museum to meet the rest of the tour group. We decided to take some of the cyclos, a kind of bike with a pram-style basket on the front that you sit in. It’s a taxi service, and proved to be one of the best decisions of our stay in the city.

 

A great way to travel!

John got placed with Alissa, while Ricky and I got given our own, and soon we were weaving around all over the roads and through the thousands of motorbikes that make this city such brilliant fun. It took about 20 minutes and the equivalent of just under £2 each for the ride, but it was money well spent. The laughs continued, and it was a brilliant way to see the city.

War Remnants Museum

The laughs soon stopped at the War Remnants museum however, a collection of photographs, images and stories about the Vietnam War and the effects caused by some of the American weapons used on the Vietnamese people.

Captured US tank

I had no idea just how much damage is still caused by some of the poisons dropped on the country, particularly Agent Orange. Some of the photographs of people and children still being affected, or born disfigured as a result, were particularly hard to look at. So too were the images of war and some of the stories of what happened to whole villages under American fire.

American bomb and shell fragments

There were collections of crash wreckage, bomb fragments, guns and mines which were left behind by the fighting, while the outside area is dominated by aircraft and tanks that belonged to the States.

A goodbye from Louise and Darren as we leave them behind

Before long, it was time to say our goodbyes to the rest of the group that was leaving as we headed to the main railway station for an overnight train to Nha Trang. It was sad to leave our friends behind as the bus continued on without them, but we shared some great times together and good friendships were made. I’d like to think we’ll meet up again sometime, and Ive already promised John a pint in Melbourne when I arrive.

On a train again at Saigon station

That night we were on the train to the coast once again, sharing a compartment with Colin, Sarah and Malcolm. We raised a beer in tribute to those who had left, and looked forward to the next part of the trip with some new friends in tow.

With Ricky, Colin and Sarah on the train

 

 

Advertisements

The Killing Fields, Cambodia

When you look around in Cambodia, there are very few old people. There’s a reason for that – just outside my lifetime, almost half of the population was wiped out by the Khmer Rouge.

It’s a staggering fact. The population dropped from more than seven million people to three million people as communist Pol Pot and his army systematically murdered the middle classes in the mid 1970s. Anyone who was educated, who could possibly question him and his regime, was sent to one of hundreds of killing sites and buried in one of more than 10,000 mass graves.

Mass graves near Phnom Penh

I knew a bit about what happened – I remember hearing about the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot on the news as a kid, but I had no idea about the full scale of the genocide, how many people were killed, the reasons why or the brutality behind it.

The visit to Cambodia’s killing fields, and the capital’s main prison, was harrowing.

One of the reasons for travelling is to broaden the mind and to educate, and today that certainly was the case. I knew it wasn’t going to be a day by the seaside, but its hard to fully prepare for what you are about to learn about and see.

Some of the tour group had decided to miss the visit having heard about how gruesome it can be – after all, the main memorial to those who died is a monument filled with the skulls of those whose bodies were found in the grave.

For me, learning about atrocities and what happened in the past is important, nomatter how hard it can be to take in. I visited the D-Day beaches in Normandy last year, and struggled to take in the utter waste of life caused by war on the sand in front of me. I had a similar feeling in Cambodia, except these were not people who were fighting for a cause – they were completely innocent people, who shared a similar will to live a normal life like me, but yet were dragged from their homes and murdered for no reason other than they’d tried to give themselves a better life through education and work.

Skulls of victims in the memorial

Pol Pot’s regime aimed to bring a single class to Cambodia – city dwellers were sent or forced from their homes to work the fields in the countryside. Nobody was allowed more than just a few grains of rice a day. Khmer Rouge soldiers patrolled and killed anyone who breached rules.

We travelled to Choeung Ek – one of the sites chillingly known as the Killing Fields – and our guide was a man who was born during the regime. His father and brother were killed by the Khmer Rouge, while his sister died of disease due to the poor conditions in the country. All the doctors had been killed as they were educated, and so healthcare was non-existent.

The site is one of the main memorials to the more than 1.7million people who were murdered – and its also one of the main mass grave sites. There are still hundreds of bodies buried beneath the soil, while thousands more have been exhumed.

We stood by one of the largest graves where blindfolded prisoners were led to, tied around the necks with rope to prevent them running away, hands tied, before being told to kneel, bow their heads and sing along to patriotic Khmer Rouge propaganda songs blaring from loudspeakers. One by one, they were hit over the back of the head with axe handles or spades – to save ammunition – while razor sharp palm branches were used as spears and knives to ensure any signs of remaining life were snubbed out.

It was truly barbaric. Our guide, despite doing this tour probably hundreds of times, took no pleasure from relaying to us what happened. Instead, he’s just glad that people will go and listen to him. The Cambodian government actively encourages tourists to visit the sites, learn about what happened and take photographs. It ensures the outside world is reminded of the atrocities committed here.

“I warn you, you may find some bones or teeth on the ground, still coming up from below, but don’t worry, you don’t need to feel bad about walking over them,” our guide tells us.

“Those who died, and their spirits, are just glad you have come to remember them and to tell others of their loss,”

Many of the group had a tear in the eye.

Teeth of victims still being uncovered

Sure enough, as you walk around the site, there are small piles of teeth and bone fragments, brought to the surface by heavy rains and flooding from the nearby river. The ground has hollows, dropping around three feet below the surface, where attempts have been made to recover bodies, but the simple fact is there are far too many here to fully recover them all.

All around there is cloth and pieces of rag on the dusty surface. Its only when you look closer that you realise its not rubbish or old rags – they are victim’s clothes.

Victims' clothes

There was no escape from the Khmer Rouge – even babies were murdered, bludgeoned against a ‘killing tree’ that still stands next to their mothers’ mass grave. Their theory was it would prevent an uprising in late years when the angered children grow into adults and seek revenge for what happened to their parents.

It was the sort of place where you need to spend some time, even to sit in silence for a while, just to take in and appreciate the depths humanity can sink to.

Photograph showing the site being exhumed

The walk around the graves ends at the memorial Stupa, filled with some 8,000 skulls of those whose bodies were recovered. They are arranged into groups – young women, older women, older men, children.

Memorial

Its always hard to explain how you feel at moments like that, looking at the remains of so many innocent people. Like any other decent human being, I felt anger and sadness at such a loss of life. There was almost a sense of guilt – that somehow you wanted to apologise for what other fellow humans had done to those whose skulls stare hauntingly back at you.

They are long since absent of eyes and features but yet somehow seem to be looking back at all of us who visit. I quietly paused and looked at some, trying to imagine what they may have looked like, the families they had, the jobs they did in this far flung land.

“Take photos, its important that people know,” one man said.

At just this one site, there are 129 communal graves. Only 86 of them have been exhumed, revealing the remains of 8,985 people who were exterminated here. Across Cambodia, almost two million people met their end at terrifying fields like this. It was hard to take in.

Sadly, our guide seemed to be in a bit of a hurry, and I was soon wishing I’d made my own way to the site to take it in at my own pace. Instead, we headed to Tuol Sleng, the main prison in the capital Phnom Penh, where most prisoners were taken by the Khmer Rouge before being murdered nearby.

Tuol Sleng prison

Until 1975, Tuol Svay Prey High School was filled with the sound of children and teachers. That was until Pol Pot’s henchmen turned it into Security Prison 21 (S21), the largest detention centre in the country. Between 1975 and 1978, more than 17,000 people were taken there and tortured before being sent to Choeung Ek. Those who died under their brutal treatment were buried in another mass grave at the site.

Small wooden cells

Every prisoner was photographed, and their images stare out from huge boards all around the site, in former classrooms that went on to see unimaginable horror. Many are photographed wearing a number – a tell-tale sign that they faced certain death within the next few hours.

Photographs of victims

One of the main questions I had about the regime was how it was allowed to happen – why the Cambodian people went along with such a horrific regime. The simple reason is that most, out in the countryside, had very little knowledge of the death camps. After years of civil war, they believed the Khmer Rouge would bring stability and peace, even celebrating when they first gained control of the capital. But it wasn’t long before many were sent for ‘re-education’, often duped into believing better jobs were on offer or that they had been headhunted by Khmer Rouge leaders because of their exceptional skills. Instead, they were being sent to prison, and ultimately, their deaths.

Torture cell and image of how it was found

The prison’s torture cells were particularly grim, having been left almost exactly as they were when the Khmer Rouge fled – often killing the inmates before leaving. Blood stains could still be seen on floors and ceilings, around the bed that an inmate was once strapped to.

Water torture bath found at the prison

Elsewhere, the tools and machines of torture, such as a water torture bath and shackles and chains, were still in rooms surrounded by depictions of what life was like.

It was graphic, but it was also real life- something that happened just five years before I was born. With the Second World War, you visit sites and learn about what happened in the knowledge it was sixty or seventy years ago, and that history had supposedly learned lessons. Yet somehow, years after the Beatles had risen to fame and Concorde took to the sky, this horror took place. It wasn’t the first of its kind, and by no means the last, but it was worthwhile going to learn about it and gave me a fuller understanding of what happened and why.

Only a handful of people made it out alive, among them Bou Meng, who managed to survive the prison until the Vietnamese liberated the area. His wife was murdered in the nearby killing field after also being held at the prison. He was busy signing his book, which tells of his life before and after he was captured, under a canopy near the cell he was held in.

With prison survivor Bou Meng

Incredibly, he was spared because he was an artist, put to work by painting pictures of Khmer Rouge leaders.

“I am a victim of Pol Pot,” he says

“And I was able to survive because of pictures of Pol Pot.”

I bought a copy of his book, which he signed and dated, before gratefully shaking my hand and posing for a photo.

He seemed a nice man, who had moved beyond a need for personal revenge by finding peace in educating others, in the hope similar atrocities can be avoided in the future.

“I want everyone to hear my story and the misery of other victims of the genocide. Demanding justice for the victims of the Khmer Rouge regime is always in my heart and soul.

“I will not give up my efforts in demanding justice. Even though justice cannot compensate the victims, it will prevent the atrocities from happening again.”

Bou Meng faced his tormentors by giving evidence at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal. Five top Khmer Rouge leaders are held for crimes against humanity. Their trials have just started.

Siam Reap and Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

I don’t really know too much about Cambodia – to me its one of those countries I’ve only heard of as it was featured on the news for all the wrong reasons when I was younger. But it’s the first stop on my tour and only a few hours drive away.

With a few fuzzy heads, we set off from Bangkok split up into two luxurious minibuses, although we’d been warned not all the hotels and transport will be quite as nice as the first few experiences. After a brief stop to pick up our Cambodian visas we had lunch at a border town street market. It was an interesting bowl of noodles, with some particularly interesting ‘mystery meat’ inside, mainly in the form of a tongue-shaped black lump. I hid it under a spoon and pretended I hadn’t seen it.

Interesting mealtime addition

With border formalities over in around an hour, we arrived in Siam Reap in the early evening. It’s clear that Cambodia is a much poorer country than Thailand – its dusty streets are lined with shacks made of wood and corrugated metal.

Welcome to Cambodia

Many streets are potholed and littered with rubbish. Begging is a part of life here, and its never too long before a young child approaches asking for a dollar for some postcards or a bracelet.

Tuk Tuks are also a major part of life here, and infact the main way of getting from A to B in towns due to the poor roads. They are slightly different to the nimble, wheelie performing speed demons of Bangkok, as it’s mainly a trailer attached to a motorbike, but they are surprisingly comfortable.

At the Thailand/Cambodia border with Assata from the tour

A tuk tuk was our mode of transport to a meal with a Cambodian family on the first night, and we left the hotel in a fleet of four. The journey was going well until we hit a particularly dusty stretch of road which had been badly potholed by recent flooding. Gradually, the motorbike started to sound like it needed a breather, before eventually deciding that enough was enough and it had one on its own accord. Incredibly, we’d broken down in a tuk tuk in the middle of nowhere. We considered a call to the AA.

John, Malcolm and our broken down tuk tuk

After about 20 minutes of frantic kick-starting by the driver, he got it going again long enough to limp to his friend’s house, where the motorbike was swapped over and we were off again.

Stuck

We couldn’t go all of the way to the house by tuk tuk as the road was still partly flooded by the heavy rains, but after a 10 minute walk we were greeted by the really friendly family in the village of Spean Chreav.

It was a shoes-off, sit around on the flood together affair, just how the Cambodians enjoy mealtimes, but I was introduced to something which suddenly rocketed up my favourite foods list.

Typical Cambodian meal

It’s a Cambodian dish called Amok, and comes along with various ‘run amok’ jokes, but its one of the best things I’ve eaten from this region. It came in a folded banana leaf, and was a creamy, fragrant taste a bit like a Thai green curry but thicker and sweeter.

Chicken Amok with curry and rice...beautiful!

Everyone ate really well after the slightly off-putting lunch, before the children of the village were allowed to come up and play with us.

The village kids join us

The place where we had been eating was being turned into a community school for the village by the family, who had taken it on themselves to promote education and encourage youngsters to get good jobs and a good future. But one of the surprising factors of the evening was just how much modern technology has reached into some of the poorest, most difficult places to live.

Having been asked what games one of the boys like to play, and expecting an answer along the lines of football or basketball, we were quite surprised to hear ‘Angry Birds’! Incredibly, the kids here are all big fans of the totally addictive game that started out on the iPhone, where you have to twang little birds into bricks to kill little green pigs. Its all cartoony and quite harmless, but the kids could do great impressions of the actions and noises the birds make.

Darren with his iPod touch suddenly became very popular!

I had a chat with the woman who is setting up the school. She told me the whole village had been under water for two months due to the floods, but that now it had started to dry out she could start planning activities for the kids again. She told me how they loved going to the shopping centre as a treat, purely to spend hours going up and down the escalators and lifts. She said the children have one dream: to see the sea.

Our tour group with the village children

She’s trying to save enough money to take them next year, but it’s still a humbling thing to hear. Living on the coast of an island back home, I take the seaside for granted. For the children here, it was as much a dream to see it as it is for us winning the lottery. She went on to tell me how she’s gaining support and helping to organise events among parents in the village – on Facebook! It seems wherever you are in the world, apart from those places its banned, there’s no getting away from its usefulness!

It was an early night back, as at stupid o’clock in the morning our alarms were all going off. It was 4.20am, still dark outside, and there was a tour bus waiting outside reception. It was to take us to Angkor Wat, a series of huge ancient temples just outside the town. We’d been asked if we wanted to go for sunrise, and however much the temptation was to say I’d give it a miss, this was one early morning start I was glad I made.

Sunrise at Angkor Wat

It’s such a famous sight, but to see the sky changing colour behind it as dawn breaks was spectacular. We arrived to see a feint silhouette of the main temple looming ahead, and as we moved into position around the pond in front, gradually the sky changed from a deep blue, to purple, to red and through to orange as the sun rose from behind one of its famous towers.

Sunrise

It was difficult to know when to take photos, as with every passing minute the incredible scene in front of us changed for the better – the mirror image reflection on the perfectly still water got clearer, and there was genuine excitement among the hundreds of people who had got up so early to watch the spectacle. I wasn’t expecting to be taken aback by it quite as much as I was – it truly was one of the best sunrises I’d seen in such a beautiful and famous setting.

After a quick trip back to the hotel for breakfast (and in my case, a much needed powernap) we headed back. Angkor Wat, built around 1150, is perhaps one of the most incredible buildings mankind has ever made.

From the back

But there isn’t just the one temple-it’s a massive site, built for the king Suryavarman IIin the early 12th century as his state temple and capital city.

People still live and work around the temples

Its estimated that Angkor had been the largest pre-industrial city in the world, with an elaborate system of infrastructure connecting an urban sprawl of at least 390 square miles. There were around 1,000 temples of various sizes, a huge manmade moat and the biggest swimming pool ever constructed at the time – although only to be used by the leader and his people.

We first went to a place known as the jungle temple, where the native trees have done their best to wreck the place. Everywhere you look, huge trunks and roots weave their way around the huge stone blocks. The belief is that the temples came from nature, and so if nature wants to take them back, then so be it.

Big roots!

The end result is a great sight – huge ‘spung’ trees, hundreds of years old, growing through the roof in various locations, and intricate roots searching around the giant stone blocks for a water source. Many parts have been renovated and pieced back together following collapse, rivalling the Terracotta Warriors for the title of most difficult jigsaw puzzle.

Our group

Next we went on to another temple which involved a death-defying climb up the side. The steps were incredibly steep, and almost as vertical as ladders. A good group of us made it to the top and took in the views.

The view was great

The main temple of Angkor is the star here though – it was the centre of the huge site that was constructed. Its unbelievably huge, regarded as the largest single religious building ever made.

Tiny detail

But apart from its size, the detail of the carvings is hard to take in. Almost every piece of stone has intricate stonework covering the whole surface – around doorways, around windows, along walls, on floors – it must have been one of the most labour-intensive projects ever undertaken by man. The stone was brought some 100km from a quarry, sometimes floated along a nearby river on the monsoon tides. There are still holes and markings visible on most, where those who built the temple somehow managed to lift them into place.

Some of the stone carvings

Everything here is on an incredibly huge scale, from the detailed stonework, to the wall carvings, to the vast area the whole place covers. Elephants were used to move the stone around, and in many places there are carvings of elephants and trunks which protrude from the walls.

We’d all been in search of the elusive photograph of a robed monk, and while in the main temple there were a group of them walking around. We all tried to get discreet shots, but when there’s a group of tourists suddenly reaching for cameras whenever they get near, it soon became clear what we were up to. One of them came over and talked to us about his life, where he was from and how he was enjoying his visit. He then said we could add him as a friend on Facebook. It really does seem absolutely everyone is on it!

Fellow tourists!

At another temple, hundreds of faces of the Buddha look out from huge stone pillars, while we spent a few minutes walking along the main road into the site, through a stone gateway, again with more intricate detail all over it.

One of the main bridges over the moat

The sun was beating down on us all day, and the sticky heat means it’s always a relief to get into the air conditioned minibus, but as we were driving away there were some elephants at the side of the road. The bus stopped and we all took turns to stroke their trunks and feed them bananas. They are such beautiful animals, their eyes looking at you and taking everything in around them as you approach.

As a group we’d decided to make our way to a floating village, so we left the temples at about 4pm to catch a boat. The full problem of the flooding became clear as we approached the departure point – water was suddenly as far as the eye could see, with the tops of trees and bushes poking out.

Flooding

We passed villagers who were busy making dinner and going about their lives, despite the watery surroundings. While many of their houses were raised off the ground, it was obviously difficult to live and get by in such conditions,

We got on the boat for the journey to the floating village, which according to our guide is mainly made up of Vietnamese people who made their way to Cambodia but were not allowed entry.

Floating village

Instead, they took their boats and floated out into the lake they had just crossed, hooked up to a tree and made it their home. Now there’s a fairly substantial village, complete with school and a hammock bar, happily floating around six metres above land, and in doing so getting around the border problem.

Chilling!

Everyone seemed really happy as we floated by, lounging around on the roof of the boat, many were giving us waves and saying hello. At one point a faster longboat pulled up and a young girl, only around seven years old, jumped over the gap to sell us beers and soft drinks.

After watching a beautiful sunset over the lake – meaning we’d seen it rise and set in the same day – we stopped by a crocodile farm where they breed them for meat and their skins. Then there was a special treat to go with our ice cold beers – some snake meat.

I saw it rise...I saw it set

Now, I’m always willing to give things a go – its part of the fun when travelling –but having been offered snake meat kebabs along with scorpions and tarantula when I was in China, it wasn’t really appealing to me here either. But then Colin said it was actually quite nice, followed by a few more tentative nibbles.

“It tastes like bacon,” someone joked.

And sure enough, it did – I first had a nibble, blotting out the fact that it’s a snake – and then got a bit of a taste for it. It was even the same texture as bacon, looking and tasting just like when you leave bacon in a frying pan for too long and it goes all dark and chewy. It was a surprise for everyone, and nobody left it. The plate was clean in no time!

Full of beer and snake, we headed back and went out for dinner and drinks. Having had quite a bit of my new discovery, chicken amok, over the last few days, I was recommended another dish by my Thai tour guide Fon. Its fried vegetables with chilli and garlic, so I ordered it- ‘deep fried morning glory’ (stop giggling at the back!)

While it was pleasant enough, it felt a bit too much like I was eating the grass we’d seen people picking from the roadside as we passed by on the bus. It was a bit dry with the mound of rice too. I knew I should have stuck with what I knew – the amok was ‘amazing’ according to those who had it.

It was the first opportunity to have a few drinks after dinner, so we headed for pool and cocktails at the Temple bar in Siam Reap. We’d been told for just $8 you get a pitcher of cocktail and a free t-shirt.

I only did it for a free t-shirt, honest!

It was a great night – the travelling pool sharks became known (Ricardo being one, although I managed to beat him) a stage was found and a few people managed to strut their stuff – badly – despite the incredibly long day. At 2.30am, I rolled back into the hotel clutching two free t-shirts, Tuk Tuk grease all up my legs and a lot of great photos and good laughs about the shenanigans that we’d all just been part of.

Ricardos pool skills impressed the locals

I’d agreed to give blood the next morning, which added to the hilarity for some people who’d seen me somehow put away about four litres of Cambodia’s finest Temple cocktail, but sure enough when the alarm went off at 9am I managed to drag myself down to reception to meet Fon, while everyone else slept off hangovers.

Because of the floods, there’s a huge outbreak of Dengue Fever among children at the moment, and its really taking its toll. Many are dieing because blood supplies, needed for treatment, are always running low. After checking that everything was sterile and new, with no risk of infection, I agreed to go along and give a pint to the local hospital.

Appeal for blood

I’m a big believer in giving blood – I did it for years back home until my travels saw me being turned away by the NHS. Because I’ve visited malaria-prone areas, I get banned from giving blood for up to a year at a time. That currently means it will be June 2013 before I can give blood in the UK again, but somebody somewhere may as well have some of it!

Despite taking anti-malaria tablets, the hospital welcomed me in. There were three of us, including Fon’s fellow tour guide friend, and many people looked at us as we walked through. It was a sad sight to see so many poorly children, many being cradled by their mums on mats on the floor. The hospital has to treat hundreds of children every day, and if ever I needed justification for doing what I was doing, the walk through to the donation room was just that.

It didn’t take long, and aside from a brief pinch when the needle goes in, the worst bit is always trying to take the plaster off later in the day. The least I can do in such a poor country is to give something back, and I’d like to think that a child somewhere has been helped out.

Helping out with a pint

An hour later we were on the bus heading to our next stop, Phenom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. It was a seven and a half hour journey on a public bus. It was comfortable enough, but the driver had an awful habit, as most do here, of beeping every time he approaches a cyclist/motorcyclist/tuk tuk/lorry…infact, almost anything.

Unfortunately, the horn gets used that much over here it pretty much loses its effect. This was demonstrated by the two dogs that were fighting in the road as we approached. There was a horn…and then there was a thud…and then the bus jolted up and down. The Chinese passengers on the right side of the bus laughed. Assata, our American co-traveller, screamed.

“Lets just call that fight a draw then,” says John in his Aussie accent.

Its never good when an animal loses its life, let alone two at the same time, but it was certainly the main talking point as we arrived in the capital after a day-long journey.

It’s good to be back

My view of South Korea

South Korea wasn’t a country I had on my visit wish-list, but thanks to Korean Air offering the cheapest ticket to Bangkok from Xi’An, I had the pleasure of spending 90 minutes there.

Naturally, my sightseeing abilities were limited somewhat, but from the air there seemed to be a nice beach on the flightpath into Seoul, and the airport had some pretty fast wifi!

I was just glad to be heading to Thailand. I’m booked onto a 30-day organised tour of south-east Asia, starting in the Thai capital, but there’s been a few concerns over whether it would actually go ahead or not due to the flooding, and risk of further flooding, around Bangkok.

Its been caused by a wet rainy season which has seen far more water descend on the country than normal – so much so that parts of the city have been evacuated. It had meant checking with the tour company a few times in the run-up to flying out, but thankfully it was all still going ahead, albeit with a change here and there as railway lines have been flooded. Despite all the doom and gloom reports I keep seeing on the news though (you know what reporters are like!) fellow travellers were reporting it wasn’t too bad.

Landing back in Bangkok was strange. Back in May, I landed at the same airport to meet Cat, a lovely girl I’d met in Hull back in January. We went on a few dates before she left for a year long trip to travel the world in March, but I know that I probably wouldn’t be doing any of my own travelling without her inspiration.

We met at a time when my personal life was pretty tough following a relationship break-up, and the year ahead of me didn’t seem to have any direction. I had little to look forward to aside from focusing on my career, but even that was proving difficult because of the situation at work – it’s always hard when a relationship ends but you still have to work together. But in Cat I found someone who was one of the most thoughtful and generous people I’d ever met, who could make me laugh, was great company and in turn made me realise life could be fun again.

Cat was touring south east Asia herself when she got in touch and suggested I fly out for a holiday. It was a massive step- a leap of faith she called it on my part – as we hardly really knew each other. We even jokingly worked out that our sixth date was two weeks in Thailand together – but going from a few drinks on a couple of nights in a Hull bar to spending all day every day together for two weeks on the other side of the world was pretty daunting for both of us.

With Cat and other travellers at Maya Bay, Koh Phi Phi, in May

As it happens, we had a fantastic time together backpacking, island-hopping, drinking far too many cocktails and eating more green curry than can ever be good for you. In doing so I discovered Thailand, how much I loved the region and the whole backpacking culture- it was that trip that made me realise just how much I’d possibly missed out on by focussing on my career when all my other friends were doing similar year-long jaunts around the world in their early twentys.

Cat’s stories and passion for the places she had travelled to was infectious. She kept drilling into me how ‘life’s too short’ and how we have to see the planet while we can. Now I was back at the same baggage carousel at Bangkok’s main airport six months on, waiting for my backpack to appear once again, but this time it was the first month of my own world adventure, and following in Cat’s footsteps by doing exactly the same tour around the Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.

Suddenly the time that had passed in between my arrivals at Bangkok seemed to disappear. I remember my nerves from that day in May and seeing Cat’s equally nervous but smiling face waiting for me at arrivals. It all felt very familiar, and it was good to be back, but it was a strange feeling to be there on my own.

I’d decided to stay in the same hotel we stayed at earlier in the year, the Bangkok Center Hotel, mainly as I knew exactly how to get there and the fact my tour starts from there in a few days time. It cost more than id been paying, but felt I needed a bit of a treat – a few days of comfortable privacy, in a big bed and with my own bathroom. Already that seems like a luxury!

The MBK shopping centre, Bangkok

I’d also decided the next few days would be relaxing after a few very busy weeks. It was nice to go to sleep without setting the alarm and having a lazy morning before heading to the MBK shopping centre Cat had taken me to. This was the place I knew would be able to sort out my iPhone – there’s a whole floor dedicated to Thai whizkids who can unlock, repair and in some cases completely rebuild almost any electronic device. After almost a month without it following the Apple update which cleared everything from it, I’d got used to seeing my iPhone as a useless lump of weight in my bag.

Sure enough, after just two hours and £10, it was back in working order again, completely unlocked and with an international simcard. I got my watch fixed for £1, and stocked up on a range of suncreams and insect repellent that id not bothered packing back home, mainly as Siberia didn’t really threaten on the sunburn front.

You become an expert at sandbag hurdles

It was clear however that Bangkok wasn’t out of the woods when it comes to flooding. There were sandbags absolutely everywhere, while businesses have built makeshift walls around them to try to keep water out.

My hotel

There were scores of buses, cars – and strangely, ice cream vans – parked up along the raised motorways. Taxi drivers I spoke to told me how the floodwaters were only two kilometres or so away from my hotel in places, and that they were expecting it to eventually reach the city centre.

Dam it

Emergency flood centres had been set up all over the place, while donation boxes are in almost every shop. I donated some pencil crayons and colouring books at the airport collection, as they’d been in my bag incase I came across any youngsters at some of the poorer places I’d been visiting in Mongolia. They joined other kids toys and crayons that hopefully will cheer someone up a little. The rest of my time in Bangkok was spent uploading a backlog of photos and posts to my blog, which had been banned in China, while I also sent a box of books and souvenirs from the trans-Siberian part of my trip home to the UK.

Makeshift walls in readiness

In reception at the hotel, my name was on a list of 13 or so other names that form my tour group with Gap Adventures. When I first arrived, it was strange to look at the list knowing they were the people who would form a huge part of my next few weeks of travelling, yet I had no idea who they are. Before long it was 6pm on Friday, November 11, and the time for the reception meeting to be introduced to everyone.

The famous Khao San Road

It was a nervous start to the meeting, everyone seemed quiet and subdued. A lot of people had only just flown into Thailand and so were still getting used to both the heat and the time difference. We started with a few introductions and soon worked out who was who. There was an American, a Canadian, two Germans, a girl from Switzerland, an Australian, a Scot and six of us from England.

Neon and madness on the Khao San Road!

It seems to be a really good mix of people, and we were soon being loaded into tuk tuks for a Thai green curry on the famous Khao San Road. Before long, the banter started to get going, fuelled by plenty of large Chang beers. John, an Aussie, is a fellow journalist, working for a Fox sports network in Melbourne , so we already had plenty in common, including a shared sense of humour.

A deal being struck for Colin's hat!

We moved outside for a few more drinks, taking in the atmosphere and getting to know one another better. There was a steady stream of hawkers coming up and offering a variety of daft things to buy. We managed to keep them all at bay, until the alcohol fuelled a purchase of a daft hat for $2. It was a joint purchase by John and I for Colin, who is here with his partner Sarah from Nottingham.

'Smiles' all round

Naturally, Colin had to wear it, and he particularly enjoyed his close encounter with the sales lady and her pretty nifty dentistry.

'Gis a kiss Colin?!'

Ice firmly shattered, we headed back to the hotel in another fleet of tuk tuks. Somehow, despite three biggish blokes being in the back, our driver managed to pull off a number of wheelies along some busy Bangkok streets. It was all highly entertaining until he managed to wheelie off into the distance with around four quid more than we’d agreed in his pocket. Still, it had been a great end to a good first night on the tour.

It’s great to be back in this part of the world, and already i’m realising exactly why it inspired me to come back and to see and experience more of life over here. Tomorrow we head to Cambodia.

Tuk Tuks: A wheelie good ride!

Xi’An and the Terracotta Warriors, China

Terracotta Army

I’d been looking forward to flying out of Shanghai. Not because I was glad to be leaving the city –quite the opposite infact – but because it meant I got to ride the fastest form of land transport in the world.

Maglev this way...

Shanghai’s Pudong airport is more than 20 miles from the city centre, a good hour’s ride on the underground. So being a futuristic bunch, they decided to build a shuttle between the outer city centre and the airport – using magnets.

Maglev arrives

It’s a bit like a cross between the Heathrow Express rail service from London and the Alton Towers monorail – but at warp speed! An incredible 431km/h (268mph) to be precise, faster than any car on earth. Its all done thanks to the opposite poles of powerful magnets – the effect you get when they don’t stick together but push away from each other.

Some bright spark has managed to make this into a form of transport, by fixing the powerful magnets to a monorail-style train and an elevated track. The result is quite staggering – the 18 mile journey gets covered in seven minutes thanks to a complete absence of friction! Its even a popular video on Youtube, such is the speed the train reaches.

Having completed the longest rail journey in the world, I just had to add ‘fastest land transport journey’ to the list too. I had to pick up my tickets from a counter in the terminal between 2.30pm and 3pm, for my flight to Xi’An in western China at 4.45pm. I arrived at the Maglev terminal at 2.20pm – and was gutted to see it doesn’t run at full speed until 3pm. At all other times, it crawls along at 320km/h.

 Well that wasn’t much faster than the bullet train the other day, and as I watched the world fly by the window, I was annoyed that I wouldn’t experience the full speed the Maglev is capable of. It took over eight minutes to cover the distance, but all along I was looking at my watch and thinking – could I pick up my tickets and get back to the Maglev in time to ride it at full speed, back to Shanghai, and get back in time for my flight?

I soon found the ticket counter and thankfully there were no queues at check-in. I dumped my backpack on the conveyer, got given my boarding card and looked at my watch. It was 2.50pm, the flight boards at 4.15pm – surely I could make it

With all of my belongings on the way to the cargo hold of a Hainan Airlines jet, I knew it was tight and left very little room for error or catastrophe. If the Maglev breaks down,it would cause far to many problems to even think about. But I couldn’t leave Shanghai without experiencing it – after all, I might never return or have another chance!

It was a busy service...

With a bit of a quick walk I reached the ticket office and paid around £8 for the return trip. A man waved me through saying the next Maglev was leaving, and I was safely on the 3pm trip back to Shanghai. It was the first of the afternoon to go at full pelt, and what an experience. With a bit of a shudder, it pulls out of the station and picks up speed. It then takes on a bit of a feeling of a theme park ride – you can hear the engine or magnets, or whatever it is that propels it, rising in pitch and you can feel the g-force keeping you in your seat. Trees and houses start to go past quicker and quicker, before they turn into factories and warehouses as we quickly reach the outskirts of the city.

 Before long the digital display is showing 350km/h and still rising. The noise is still increasing and there’s no sign of the Maglev slowing. Outside, bridges pass overhead in a blink, with everything going by so quickly you have no real time to focus or look at anything. Cars travelling full speed on a motorway alongside the track appear almost at a standstill. By now the carriages are shaking a little, a gentle vibration as we hit 400km/h. We’re already going almost twice as fast as an airliner at take-off, and still the speed counter climbs. As a bit of a speed freak, it was fantastic – and people onboard realise it, with so many passengers looking at each other and smiling in amazement, taking photographs and filming the scene outside the windows. It was the sort of speed that makes you think ‘surely this is dangerous

Top speed!!

Its so fast, we’re only at its top speed of 431km/h for a minute or so, and no sooner had we left the airport we were slowing down and arriving back in Shanghai.

I got off, ran downstairs, through the turnstiles and back up the stairs on the opposite side of the platform to get back on the same Maglev for the trip back. Seven minutes later, at 3.25pm, I was back at the airport – in plenty of time to join the other tourists taking photos of this brilliant piece of engineering and get through security in time for boarding.

For £8 return, the journey should be a tourist attraction in its own right – I imagine many people have already done the same as me judging by the smiles of staff acknowledging what I was up to. It was money well spent – it would cost a heck of a lot more to be taken for a spin in a Bugatti Veyron to get anywhere close to that speed, and even then the Maglev is faster.

Noodles and blog!

There was time for some beef and noodles before the flight, where yet again the locals took pleasure in watching the westerner trying to use chopsticks, while the free wifi meant time for a blog update.

It was a two and a half hour flight to Xi’An, and while I wasn’t expecting anything special for my £90 ticket, I was pleasantly surprised. A full meal service with drinks,  a lovely new plane with lots of leg room, comfy seats….and a lot of phlegm.

I’d been holding off writing about this, but quite simply, my patience reached its limit on the aircraft. China has to be the ‘phleghmiest’ nation in the world. You cannot walk the streets for more than 90 seconds without hearing one of the locals, shall we say, ‘clearing their throat’. It’s always very loud, very visible, and to be honest, quite disgusting. It got to the point where it makes you shudder. It doesn’t matter where you are – I saw it happen on trains, on platforms, in shopping centres, at museums, and now planes

First plane in a while!

.Across the aisle from me was possible the largest, sweatiest Chinese guy I had seen during my stay, and for me, also the most disgusting. We’d just taken off when I heard the familiar noise come from him…and immediately wondered what he would do with the ‘deposit’. Well, in China, airsickness bags have another use

From Shanghai to Xi’An it felt like absolutely everyone was at it. There was a phlegm chorus at one point, so bad I almost had to cover my ears to switch off from it. Even through the meal service there was no respite. Its revolting, and apparently there has  even been a government campaign to try to cut down the level of spitting.

It hasn’t worked.

Xi’An was a real highlight for me though. It was a bonus visit that I hadn’t scheduled in, so the fact I was seeing anything there was great, let alone one of the greatest discoveries in this part of the world

The Bell Tower, Xi An

.I only had one full day in the city, but decided against an organised tour to see the Terracotta Warriors. My Lonely Planet I had ‘borrowed’ from the Beijing hostel said it was easy enough to get to on a public bus, and it’s always nice to be free from time limits and ‘shopping stops’ that the tours so love.

As I wouldn’t see Xi’An by day, I decided to walk through the city to find the railway station. It’s a very old place – it was once the centre of the Chinese empire – and there’s a huge city wall which still survives. It’s a busy city built up around one of its main landmarks, the Bell Tower.

Xi'An city wall

It took about an hour to reach the northern gateway to the city, and I was still some way off from the railway station to the east. I decided to walk along the top of the city wall, which was a great vantage point for spotting where I needed to be. The bus was easy to find, and soon I was walking through the grounds where the Terracotta Warriors were found

Mountains around the site

.I watched a film about how they were first discovered in 1974 by a villager out digging a well. Little did he know that the fragments of pottery and clay he was bringing to the surface would turn out to be one of the greatest ever historical finds. He’s done alright out of it though – he’s now got a special building near the exit to the site where he sits all day signing copies of his book

The bits of clay he’d found were parts of an estimated 8,000 full-sized, highly detailed warriors, complete with weapons and horses, and arranged in full military fighting positions

The soldiers in the main pit

They had been constructed by hundreds of thousands of people under orders of Emperor Qin, the first emperor of China (pronounced ‘Chin’ hence ‘China’) who believed that when he died, he could still be a leader in the afterlife. But if he was to be buried and be a leader underground, he needed his own army to protect him. Therefore, the terracotta warriors were built. Ironically, the emperor died while visiting the area, and so that’s where they were buried

Pit 3

.

There are three pits where the warriors were found, all fairly close to each other. I’d been advised, and it turned out to be a great tip, to tour the museum in reverse, starting with the smaller pit and building to the larger pit.

Remains in the pit

The smaller pit had very few soldiers in it, but it was still quite a special sight to see this huge hole in the ground, complete with clear marks left behind by artefacts that were found, including chariot wheels and the remains of wooden beams which protected the tombs.

Bronze chariot for the Emperor

The main pit was incredible. The sheer size of the area where the warriors were found, the rows upon rows of immaculately restored warriors standing to attention, the excavation work and restoration work that is still ongoing.

Still digging

So far around 2,000 warriors have been found at the main site, and its estimated there will be up to 6,000 of them recovered in there by the time all the work is completed.

Piecing together the jigsaw

It will take many, many years for them to be found and restored, piece by piece. Its like the world’s biggest, most challenging jigsaw – and the final result is still a long way off.

In the meantime, thousands of people visit the site. The soldiers are all different, with different features, faces, weapons and stances. The work that must have gone on thousands of years ago is hard to comprehend. It’s also amazing to look at the warriors and imagine what life must have been like for the people who made them, and to think about how, at some point, they would have all looked fully painted up and stood in formation.

I was almost the last one to leave the site, even taking in Emperor Qing’s mausoleum on the way out, which is at a seperate site a few minutes drive away on a free bus.

I had spent all day on my feet and walked for miles after a particularly tiring week, but decided to walk back through the city to the hostel to take in the atmosphere on my last night in China. I bought some street food – a bit more mystery meat on a stick, although it was a bit more ‘chickeny’ than the last one I tried; and some more of the stick haws, the little crab apples in sugar on a stick. I sat on a plant pot and ate them watching the traffic trying to negotiate the roundabout around the Bell Tower, before finding a night market and looking at just how bad some of the fake Abercrombie and Fitch fakes were. They’re quite special!

Night market

The colour and atmosphere of the Chinese night markets is always a spectacle – the atmosphere, the smells (not all good) the banter with the locals trying to sell you something you’d never need in a million years….its typically Chinese and great fun.

There was also a new thing being sold on the streets – a view of the moon. All thanks to some entrepreneur who’s managed to strap Hubble onto the back of a rickshaw…

The Nasa rickshaw!

Tomorrow I fly to the warmer climes of Thailand, but my 10 days in China had been a true experience. From arriving on the most famous train in the world and pulling into the Chinese capital with new-found friends, to seeing the famous Tiananmen Square and Forbidden City, flying around on superfast trains and whizzing up and down one of the tallest buildings in the world. It had been a packed 10 days and I felt tired, but I’d managed to see the main sights I wanted to see in this huge country. A great mix of old and new.

Shanghai, China

Shanghai by night

It was 3am on the day I was travelling to Shanghai when I finally got into bed, having had just a couple of drinks in a packed Beijing nightclub called Vics. Three hours later, I was getting up again to watch the raising of the flag ceremony in Tiananmen Square.

Chinese flag being raised at dawn

It was something that I’d seen on signs around the square, monitored by police and soldiers, and takes place twice a day, at sunrise and sunset. There’s lots of soldiers marching around, music, the flag of China being hoisted up the huge flagpole opposite Mao’s portrait, that kind of thing. I’d tried – and failed – to wake up early enough on two previous occasions, but this was my last chance as my train to Shanghai left Beijing’s South Station at 10am.

“You’ll never do it. Its crazy,” Santi said to me as we headed to bed just a few hours ago.

Plenty of early risers

Somehow, despite a slight hangover, I made it, and walked along with the Chinese public through Tiananmen Square to go and watch this most patriotic of ceremonies. Despite the early hour, there were hundreds, if not thousands of people there, all wanting their glimpse of the flag being raised. At precisely 6.45am, the national anthem began, everyone jostled for a look, and at precisely the moment the flag reached the top of the pole, the anthem came to a natural end. It was perfect timing – and obviously very well rehearsed.

And that was it – a few soldiers did a little march, but everyone was too busy heading to their flag-waving tour leader, and no doubt on to their buses, for a day of sightseeing.

I headed back to bed for an hour, wondering if it was really worth the effort getting up – it hardly gave our Changing of the Guard ceremony a run for its money!

Thankfully, I didn’t sleep through my re-set alarm, stuffed the last of my belongings into my bag and put my jacket on. I had to say goodbye to Santi and Gali here, which was a real shame as we’d become good mates, even despite the fact Gali and I could only have decent conversations through Santi acting as an interpreter!

We first met in Russia, at the backpackers in Irkutsk, so we’d spent the best part of two weeks together, with a few other people along the way. It just so happened our itineraries matched, so we ended up hanging out and booking hostels together. Sadly, they don’t leave for Shanghai for another few days. We’d had some brilliant laughs together though, and I’d like to think we’ll stay in touch.

Now, I was on my own again, for the first time since Russia which was already seeming like quite some time ago. Laden down with all my bags yet again, I headed to the incredibly modern Beijing South Station, to get onboard an even more modern Bullet train to Shanghai.

Swish!

Everything is set out like an airport. Infact, you don’t see any trains as they are all beneath you, and with the huge futuristic station, incredibly high ceiling, gigantic electronic destination board and the fact you have to ‘check in’ with your rail ticket, it does feel more like you’re at an airport than Beijing’s equivalent of King’s Cross.

But if I thought the station was impressive, the actual train was like something from the future. A long, streamlined, pointed nose stretches out, while the immaculately white and spotlessly clean carriages are constantly being polished by an army of cleaners. Whether it helps with its top speed, I’m not entirely sure – but at least you could see out of the windows.

A go-faster polish!

As it whizzed up to its top speed of 307km/hr, the world started rushing past the window. It was spectacularly quick and very comfortable – a long, long way from the trans-Siberian trains I had spent so many days on.

I took the slow train

I fell asleep for a few hours thanks to the early start and late night, but thankfully my headache had started to go away. In less than five hours – 4hrs 48mins to be precise – we had covered more than 800 miles between the two cities and pulled into Shanghai. To put that into some kind of perspective, it’s the equivalent of travelling from Cornwall to the top of Scotland in less than five hours. Amazing.

A bit different to the trans-Siberian

While on the train, I’d been looking at the calendar. I’d worked out that with a clever bit of fast sightseeing in Shanghai, I had just enough time for a stop in Xi’An, home of the Terracotta Warriors, if flight schedules and prices were kind to me.

I found the hostel quite easily thanks to some much better directions from the website, and it was quite some hostel. The Rock and Wood in Shanghai is classed as the number one ‘alternative’ accommodation in the city on Tripadvisor, and it was easy to see why – fabulous fish-filled pond, decking, floor to ceiling windows onto the terrace, free pool, cheap bar, excellent rooms. It was more like an upmarket hotel – and it was just £5 a night!

The first thing I did in Shanghai? I put a load of washing on! (it was about time!)

Posh hostel

When it was all dried, I went out to explore and headed to the Bund, the main waterfront area where you can see the famous skyline.

Shanghai skyline

My journey took me along the main shopping street in the city, but it was lit up with so much neon it put Piccadilly Circus to shame.

Shanghai at night

There were street entertainers everywhere, music, groups of Chinese people singing to some crazy man acting as a conductor, and street hawkers trying to sell you absolutely anything.

On the mile or so walk, I was offered dozens of annoying lit-up helicopter things that are constantly floating down to the ground, noisy pebbles, spinning tops, laser pens, kites, roller wheels for my shoes, some funny glasses, a dog (real), various massages, some authentic Chinese tea (not again!) about three ‘beautiful women’ and one ‘gorgeous guy’.

I declined all the offers.

Shanghai nights

I eventually beat off the sales pitches and made it to the waterfront, where there were hundreds of people relaxing and taking in the view. Low cloud was getting in the way, but it was still a great sight.

Chinese street singing party

I stayed until 11pm when I decided to make my way back to the underground station, only to find out the last train had already gone. It was a really early finish for one of the leading cities in the world, so a taxi it was.

Next day was the busy day with a plan to walk around the sights from People’s Square, but that’s where I did fall for a sales pitch. The open top sightseeing bus was only £3 for the day, and I knew it would give my legs a rest.

New motor anyone?!

In the walk to People’s Square however, it became clear how this city has earned its reputation as the playground of the rich. Upmarket car brands such as Audi and BMW are just the norm here – instead, super-exclusive car showrooms are dotted around the streets. It was quite normal to walk past a Ferrari parked up in a shop window next to your head, while Gucci and Tiffany seem to be dotted around like a Tesco Express

The local backstreet car dealer

The sights were taken in by two routes on the bus, one that did a loop around Shanghai’s older areas, while another went under a tunnel to the newer financial district and all its skyscrapers.

Bus tour

It was nice to sit for a few hours and take in all the sights, both of old Shanghai and around the modern day city, one of the biggest financial centres in the world.

It included what was until recently the tallest building in the world, the Shanghai World Financial Centre, a peculiar building that rises above all the others, sticking up with a huge opening at the top like some sort of giant bottle opener.

The Jin Mao tower, me, and the World Financial Center

It was about £15 to go up to the observatory – classed as the highest observatory in the world – and take in the impressive, if a little cloudy view (the cloud line was just above the 100th floor, so every now and again a big cloud would fly by and block the view!)

Don't look down

I’d timed it to see the view in daylight, and then hung around looking through the glass floor and trying to pick out landmarks until it got dark, and then took some night shots too.

From the 100th floor

I also did a bit of research, and found out that all the signs and posters everywhere were now wrong, as a new skyscraper in Dubai has knocked the Shanghai tower off its perch as highest observatory too. They were quite proud of their record here though, so I didn’t have the heart to break the news to them!

Room with a view!

I went down in the high-speed lift to the bottom and walked to something dubiously called the Bund Tourist Tunnel. It cost a fiver to go through, and you get bunged into a funny monorail type thing and travel under the river to the Bund. You pass through all sorts of psychedelic lights and effects, and it was all a bit weird. Some inflatable people fluttered against the windows at one point.

I was really taken by Shanghai though – its very much got a big city feel about it. I was quite gutted to have to leave after just a couple of days. It gets dubbed the ‘Paris of the East’ by tour guides. Well, ive already been to the ‘Paris of Siberia’ in Irkutsk, so ive decided its more of a ‘New York of the Orient’.

Old and new

The tall skyscrapers and busy nature of the city, combined with its old architecture and ‘new living alongside old’ is something I’d definitely go back and visit.

That night, I found a cheapish flight to Xi An and a flight from Xi An to Bangkok in a couple of days. My plan had come together – I was able to fit in a bonus trip to one of the other famous architectural sights in China. But it meant leaving Shanghai earlier than planned.

At least I’ll be able to use the futuristic and exciting Maglev to the airport tomorrow though!

Oriental Pearl Tower, Shanghai

Beijing, China

Outside the Forbidden City (as taken by the 'tea leaves')

The Chinese capital is a fantastic place, despite the odd scamp trying to charm money out of your wallet (see previous My Beijing Tea Party post!)

Gali, Santi and I at the 'Birds Nest' stadium

After the episode in the tea shop, I went on to meet Gali and Santi at the site of the Beijing Olympics in 2008. The famous Birds Nest stadium looms large as you walk through the neighbouring park, and I have to say, its even more impressive up close than it appeared on the television.

My memories of watching the Olympics are dominated by the incredible opening ceremony, and as I peered through the railings I could just see through a gap into the stadium. It was quite quiet around, despite for a few hundred tourists doing the same as me, and hard to imagine what it must have been like back then. A few people, when they find out you’re English, start talking about London 2012 and ask if we’re ready for it. Of course, I tell them we are, but I’m not quite sure whether our opening show will quite match the extravagance in China.

The Water Cube and Olympic Stadium

Next we went to the Water Cube, the famous venue that housed the swimming and diving competitions. Its also famous for its impressive appearance, a big square box covered in a material that makes it look like giant bubble wrap, and at night lit up in a dazzling blue.

The Water Cube

Inside we’d learnt they had created a waterpark, complete with slides, wave pool and lazy river. I’d lugged my swim shorts and towel around all day as we’d agreed we would go, as long as both Santi and Gali found somewhere to buy something to swim in. We tried the shops around the venue, but the Chinese must have a liking for tight Lycra-style long Speedos, which as well as being far too revealing, cost about £20. With entry to the pool a ridiculous £20 too, we decided to give it a miss.

Inside the Water Cube

When we got inside, we were glad we gave it a miss – although the waterpark looks fun, there were very few people in there, probably due to the pricing structure. But the sad thing was, although the waterpark has only been open for a year or so, it looked to be in a fairly poor shape. The pool bottom looked to be falling apart, there were signs of extensive repairs, and it just seemed a little underloved considering the famous venue it was in. The same could be said for the Water Cube in general – the carpets on stairs were threadbare in places, tiling was chipped and cracked, and the moat around the outside of the venue was discoloured.

By the Olympic pool

It was a real shame, as a little bit of TLC would bring it back to life again. It was still impressive and worth a visit – and it was great to see the pool where, thousands of miles away, I watched Michael Phelps smash records and win eight gold medals.

The diving pool

It also seemed much smaller in real life – I always imagined Olympic pools to be some enormous stretch of water. Instead, possibly because of a fairly high vantage point, it seemed about the same size as Scartho Baths!

The following day, after retrieving my passport from the Vietnamese Embassy, and retrieving my defrauded £60 thanks to the Chinese police, I took in Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum, Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City.

Chairman Mao's mausoleum in Tiananmen Square

There’s an understandably high level of security around Mao’s mausoleum – all bags have to be left at a separate building across the road from Tiananmen Square, there are three checkpoints before you reach the steps of the building, and armed guards and secret police are everywhere (you just know that the guys in suits wandering around could kill with a single prod!)

There’s a steady line of people walking through the building from the moment it opens until its closure at midday every day. Chinese tourists and Beijingers alike flock to the building to pay their respects to Chairman Mao Zedong, the communist leader who led the revolution. He’s still very much seen by the Chinese people as the man who saved the nation, and this was clear by the outpouring seen at the building where his body lies.

People buy white flowers to leave in the entrance lobby, in front of a giant marble sculpture of Mao sat in a chair. You are then ushered through into the hall where his body lies, softly lit in a glass chamber. Many Chinese visitors bow and quietly say words for him. It was strange to see him, as although he died well before I was born, he’s still such a famous face. His image is everywhere in China, including on the back of banknotes as well as the huge portrait hanging above the entrance to the Forbidden City. The light seemed to reflect slightly off his face, almost as if it was a waxwork – but of course, its not. It was a very sombre atmosphere.

Stepping out into the vast Tiananmen Square, the full scale of the area hits you. It’s the largest public square anywhere in the world, and it certainly feels like it as you walk around.

Mao

The giant buildings either side mean you lose a sense of perspective, and it takes a surprisingly long time to walk from one end to the other. The square is known in the West for the so called Tiananmen Square massacre, and that famous image of a man in a white top standing in the way of a tank during the protests for political reform in 1989. Strangely, in China, its all just known as the June Fourth incident – but nobody can research it, as I found everything blocked on the internet.

Anyway, James Miles, the BBC reporter who originally covered the protests, has since said the violence of the protests did not actually happen in Tiananmen Square, but instead in the streets outside the square. In any case, I can still remember watching it on the television when it happened, and the name of the square immediately brings those images to mind. Its also staggering to know that more than a million people would march for Mao in the square.

Chinese soldier at Forbidden City

Today, theres a very friendly feel to the place – many people are sitting on walls, eating lunch or relaxing with friends. And that’s the first place where I noticed a strange phenomena. I was simply taking a few photographs, when I noticed a Chinese couple moving closer to me. A man nearby had a camera, and was taking a photo of them – but deliberately trying to get me into shot. I thought nothing of it, and walked on.

Five minutes later, it happened again, except not so discreetly. It was all a bit embarrassing really – I had no idea Look North was so popular in the Far East! I’m used to the occasional person coming up to me in and around Yorkshire and Lincolnshire and asking ‘if I’m that bloke off the telly’ (it’s the glasses that get noticed!) but it started getting stupid.

The third time it happened, when a woman was shuffling up next to me, I just said ‘would you like a photo?’ She nodded, and her friend said ‘yes please’. I agreed, but asked why.

“Brown hair, blue eyes, from Europe,” came the reply.

Suddenly, a lot of things became clear. While it wasn’t uncomfortable travelling around Beijing, I had noticed that a lot of Chinese people seemed to stare at me. Its quite weird being on the underground, as sometimes there are that many people looking at you, you have no idea which way to look to avoid eye contact! But now I knew why – being white, with blue eyes and brown hair made me completely different, but the Chinese people, as lovely as they are, have no discretion when it comes to checking you out. Infact, most are quite blatant about it!

Many of those in Tiananmen Square were Chinese tourists, who just like British tourists from around the UK who visit London, were visiting their own capital. Many of them are from smaller, unvisited towns around China where tourism is still probably a bit of a novelty – and therefore, seeing ‘a foreigner’ is a new experience.

Still wary from the tea shop incident, I happily stood for a photo as their friends pointed and stared at me, before taking it in turns to also have a photo with me in various poses, as if I was some sort of dummy (insert your own joke Dad)

I got my own back though – she seemed slightly nervous when I said I wanted one of my own!

Random Chinese woman who wanted a photo!

Next was the Forbidden City, where the entrance fee was £11. Not so far back in history, the entrance fee would have been instant death, as for 500 years it was the private palaces and homes to Emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties.

It’s the worlds largest collection of wooden structures anywhere in the world, and impressive they are too. The Emperors thrones have all been preserved, and its not hard to imagine how this city in a city would have once been.

Forbidden City

One of the strangest things I learned was that much of the Forbidden City burnt down every now and again, mainly due to celebrations and fireworks that were frequently set off from there. As a result, huge gold-plated cauldrons were dotted around – and still sit to this day – that were filled with water to be used if another huge wooden building suddenly takes a dislike to fireworks.

Many of these cauldrons had scratch marks on them, where various attacking armies had got in and tried to nick all the gold in the place, including the gold plating off the statues and other items. It was fascinating stuff, but a lot to take in.

Scrapings still show where attempts made to steal gold

I spent about four hours wandering around, but needed about two days to really do it justice. Unfortunately, I didn’t have two days spare, so I went to the top of a nearby park and took some shots of the Forbidden City stretching out into the distance.

Old and new

Except I would have done, but it was foggy again. I say fog, but in actual fact we’ve learnt it was pollution – smog. It had been on the news about how Beijing was struggling with its worst pollution of the year, and boy could you see it from the high vantage point.

The Forbidden City...and smog

When you think about it, you can almost taste and feel it entering your body. Despite all the work that was done to clean up Beijing’s polluted image around the Olympics, there is still a long way to go – and it can’t be good that visitors go home with cloudy pictures of some of the world’s most historic sites.

This may affect your health...

That night I went to the railway station and booked a seat on an early bullet train to Shanghai the following day, while Santi and Gali tempted me to a nightclub for our last night together. This could get interesting!

My Beijing Tea Party

Nearly put off for life!

I’ve agonised over whether to post this on my blog and put my gullibility/stupidity out into the public domain, but I told myself when I decided to record my travels that it would be warts-and-all, rough with the smooth – something to look back on to remember the many good times, and if it proved to be the case, the not-so-good times.

Well, in Beijing, what had so far been a very smooth journey suddenly hit a bit of a pothole. I was scammed – although thankfully, I’ll state early on, there is a happy ending.I can just about laugh about it now, but it very nearly put me off my beloved cups of tea for life!

There aren’t many photos, but what follows is my way of a public service announcement, my experience of what happened, how I was taken in, how I confronted it and my advice to anyone travelling to China. If you don’t know me and you’ve come across this page through a search engine, the chances are the same has happened to you and you’re looking to find out what to do about it. Well, along with anyone planning to visit, I feel the following is so important, anyone applying for a Chinese visa should be made to read it before the visa gets granted.

If anyone, nomatter how normal, how nice or how genuine they seem comes up to you and asks if they can talk to you and practise their English, do not, I repeat, do not entertain them.

I’d been in Beijing for a few days, and started to feel comfortable. I knew my way around, the people were friendly, and many of the Chinese tourists were so intrigued to meet a Westerner, many would stop and have photographs taken with you and say how nice it was to meet (that’s my next post!)

Unfortunately, there are quite a few Chinese people around the main tourist sites willing to exploit the friendly meetings and mutli-cultural mix.

I was taking photographs of the main gate to the Forbidden City, taking in the atmosphere and watching the crowds filing under Mao’s portrait. Like any tourist attraction, it was really busy. Being on my own and taking photos, I’ve also become used to strangers coming up to me and offering to take a photo for me. As I was holding out my camera trying to self shoot myself in front of the famous landmark, a Chinese girl comes up to me and offered to help.

She took the photo, gave me back my camera, and I thanked her. She was around 25, looked like a student and not particularly attractive. The conversation then went like this:

“Ah, you’re English,” she said.

“I’m studying English in the south, I’m here with my friend on holiday, how long have you been here for?”

Me: “Ah, a few days now, it’s a great city.”

Her friend then appears alongside and we talk about Beijing for a minute or so

Them: “Its so good to be able to talk English and use what we’re being taught with someone from England. We love your accent – it sounds like someone on the BBC.”

I kid you not, they were her words. Naturally, I said “Well, you won’t believe this, but….”

And so it went on for about five minutes, general pleasantries and conversation like I have already had with countless other people in the weeks since I’ve left the UK.

By now, however, I’m wanting to get on with getting into the Forbidden City, as I had to meet friends at the Olympic Park later that afternoon. I tried to politely say I need to get on and take more photos, and they said they would come with me and help as they like speaking in English.

I reluctantly agreed, as they seemed harmless enough and I thought it was quite nice to be helping Anglo-Chinese relations a little by giving two English students a helping hand with their language skills.

“Its really busy in the main entrance, you should go to the Forbidden City through the East Gate, there’s not as many crowds,” the shorter one with fewer spots told me.

“We’re going that way soon as we’re going to stop for a quick coffee, we’ll show you where it is if you like?”

Thinking it was helping me out, and that if they’re off for coffee I’d at least shake them off, I went with them. We turned left down the main street which runs parallel to the eastern wall, still having normal chit chat, when they invited me to join them. Well, it was lunchtime, I’d not had anything to drink, and the thought of a coffee wasn’t a bad one. The girls seemed harmless enough, if a little geeky, and if I’m honest, it was quite fun learning about how one works part time in a Barbie toy factory, how they had travelled on the train to Beijing and they were genuinely interested in my stories about back home and hearing about my travels.

It was down this street!

“How about this coffee shop here,” she said. It seemed okay, it was a tea shop like id seen all over the place, so in we went. We were ushered into a little room with bamboo all around, and laid out on the table was a fantastic array of Chinese teas of all different shapes and colours.

I was given a menu with other drinks, when one of the girls said it’d be nice to try some of the tea. “You drink it with milk back home don’t you, blurrgh,” the girls joked.

I’d not tried the proper Chinese teas here yet, so I thought ‘why not’ and agreed.

A woman in typical Chinese attire, hair done up like a Japanese Geisha, then came in with a kettle of water and started making tea. I was given a thimble-sized cup, while some tiny satsumas and some strange crisps were put on the table. The girls tucked into the satsumas, and passed me one. I’m not a fan of oranges, but to be polite I ate one, and then was advised to try the ‘nice crisps’ which I did (not particularly nice)

The tea lady then started some weird performance of brewing tea, pouring most of it in a tray, rubbing warm cups over her face and dribbling a little bit into my thimble of a cup.

I had a sip of jasmine tea, fruit tea, green tea, black tea, a tea with a funny ball of flowers in it and a number of other teas that came at me at such a pace, that in about 15 minutes I’d probably still only consumed the grand total of half a normal cup of tea back home.

It was actually quite a performance though, with lots of information about which teas are good for you, the benefits for mind and body of one tea compared to another etc etc. I asked to take a photo – for me this was an authentic way of having tea in China and it’d be good to have a record of it, but was politely told that I couldn’t because of the tea ladies religion (???!!!)

“Which one did you like the best, as now we’ve sampled them we can choose one?” one of the girls asked

“Erm, not fussed really, whichever you preferred,” I replied, thinking I was being a gent.

Along came a teapot filled with a weak yellowy tea that was poured into my thimble.

For the next 10 minutes, conversation continued. They asked to see photos of life back home.

“Oh, you have a lovely house.”

“Wow, you’re dad is so good looking for his age.”

“You’re mum has such lovely hair.”

“You’re brother looks just like you.”

All lines ive heard from so many people on this journey so far (the one about dad was a first, admittedly…sorry dad!) and nothing to raise any suspicion.

And then the bill came: 3,260 Yuan. That’s £326.

Yes, you did read that right – hundreds of pounds for a few sips of tea.

“Oh, it’s a bit more expensive than we thought it would be, we should have checked before we ordered,” one of the girls said, blatantly clocking my suspicions.

I took the bill and looked at it. Perhaps I was jumping the gun at thinking I was being ‘done’, maybe the decimal point was in the wrong place or a nought had been added in error – although £32 would have been way out in any case.

“Well, don’t worry about paying for us, we’ll pay our share,” the girls said.

I told them to hang on, not to pay anything yet and I’ll speak to the manager. Sure enough, biggish female manager walks in and tells me the bill was correct.

“For some tea?” I said, voice getting louder and slightly high pitched as the worry of forking out £100 for my share starts to kick in.

“We take credit cards,” the manageress firmly says, pointing at a Visa sign on the wall.

I’m now starting to think on my feet in damage limitation. One of the first rules is not to hand over credit cards, so even though they’d seen it in my wallet, I told them it was maxed out.

“There’s an ATM around the corner,” she helpfully adds.

I made up more excuses about how I’d taken money out and my cashcard wont let me have anything else until next week.

I knew I had to get out of the situation somehow, and I looked again at the bill. I’d been charged £10 for the poxy satsumas and crisps, classed as snacks; £50 for the ‘tea show’; £5 for each of the 10 or so tea samples, £10 each for the ‘room hire’ and various other charges that my panicked mind wasn’t able to fully take in.

“Tea is a very precious commodity here in China, its valued highly, and you’ve drunk some very rare and expensive tea. You must pay,” I was told.

I threw back that I’d not asked for all of the teas and i’d only popped in for one cup, that I thought they were samples first before deciding which one to have, and that there were no prices anywhere, nor warnings given of how much each tea could cost.

Then they pointed at a price list which had been turned at an angle so you couldn’t see it from the place I was sat. Low and behold, each tea is listed at 50 Yuan per person.

Id been complaining for a while now, and slightly worried that some big burly bloke would come in before long, so I thought id better part with a bit of cash and try to get out of there. Unfortunately I’d been to a cash point the night before and they’d seen how much cash I had. I tried putting 500 Yuan down, but the girls both complained that they then had to pick up the rest of the bill for me that they couldn’t afford, and that they were already helping me out.

Naturally, I was feeling a bit guilty – at this point, I was still half thinking they may have been genuinely on holiday too, and it was in fact the tea shop that was cashing in on all of us. Afterall, one had paid on a card and signed the card slip…it all seemed genuine.

“Put 600 (£60) in and I’ll see if my card will pay the rest, but you’ll have to treat me when I visit England sometime,” the spotty girl said.

I’d got away with not putting all of my wallet’s contents in, so did so, and then made a beeline for the door. The girls said they had to an ATM now as the tea shop had taken all their money, and that I could go around the Forbidden City with them if I wanted.

Suddenly, I wasn’t in the mood for sightseeing. I was confused as to what had actually gone on. I suddenly felt humiliated, stupid, ashamed and vulnerable all at the same time. I walked to a place I felt safe – a McDonalds funnily enough – to have some time out and lick my wounds.

Were the girls genuine? Had they been fleeced too? Is tea sometimes that expensive? Why didn’t I check the prices? Why didn’t I just walk away after they took my photo? All questions which were rattling through my head at ten to the dozen.

I decided, as hard as it was, to put it down to bad luck and a bad experience. But £60 now, to me as a traveller, is a lot of money. Back home, I’d have probably written it off, been in a grump and moved on – but when you’re not earning and accommodation is around £5 a night, it starts eating at you that you’ve basically been robbed of two weeks-worth of hostels in South East Asia.

I met up with Santi and Gali at the Olympic park. I put on a brave face and took in the sights, but I wasn’t in a good mood deep down. I even felt too ashamed to tell them what had happened or to ask their advice, but as soon as I had wifi access back at the hostel, I Googled ‘Beijing tea’ and up came ‘Beijing tea scam’ with an incredible 2.2-million results

Suddenly, it all became very clear, with exactly the same story and circumstances, and yes, those girls were very convincing criminals.  Reading through some of the testimonies, it seems almost everyone that visits Beijing gets taken in by it, and in many cases, for hundreds of pounds. I could console myself that I’d got away relatively lightly – but it still ate away at me.

I decided to tell Santi and Gali, mainly as I’d feel awful if they got taken in by it too. They were shocked, but could understand why its convincing – and then we remembered on the first night a girl talking to Santi and saying it’d be nice to join him for a drink (that’s another scam, not a chat-up)

I woke up the next morning feeling better, but angry. I wanted to confront the shop, I wanted to get my money back, and according to the Web, some people had managed it. I contemplated going in and asking for an official copy of my receipt, which by law all Chinese businesses must keep (of course, they wouldn’t have any for their dodgy scam) Failing that, there’s the slighty risky business of getting a photograph of the business and then revealing I’m a journalist. Whatever, I needed back up, and thankfully there was a police post on the corner of the street.

The policeman I spoke to could understand a bit of English, but the moment I said ‘tea shop’ his eyes rolled and he asked how much. He told me to wait, and ten minutes later another policeman arrived in a police car. He told me to get in and I explained what happened. He said the problem was rife, and they are trying to get to grips with it, but very few people report it as they are too embarrassed.

We drove down the street and I recognised it straight away. The chubby manageress was in the window to see me get out of the police car with my new friend. Her face dropped, and she was already on her way through to the back by the time we reached the door.

“What do you want,” the tea lady who performed the show asked, with a sickening smile.

“Well, ive been reading all about your little tea parties on the internet, so I’d like my 600 yuan back please,” I replied with a stare.

She scuttled off, the copper looked at me and rolled his eyes, and then a familiar looking bill appeared with ‘600’ scribbled on the back. I was asked to sign it, and six red 100 Yuan notes were put back into my hand.

The copper said something in Chinese, which I think was along the lines of “I’m watching you,” to the manageress, and we both left. He generously gave me a lift to the Forbidden City, and on the way told me how the scam was damaging tourism but that there were so many people at it, they couldn’t keep up as names were being changed and different people and businesses were starting all the time. He told me it was mainly students trying to earn money. I wondered why nothing was being done to close down the businesses, but decided not to rock the boat.

Now my conscience was clear again – yes, I’d been scammed, but because I stood up for my rights, for fairness and for what I believe in, I’d been one of the lucky ones to get my money back. If I was at home, I would have quite happily done a story about it if it had happened to someone else, but in this case I had to fend for myself. It’s a despicable scam that preys on everything a good traveller tries to be – helpful and generous to the locals, open to new cultures and experiences, striking up conversations and relaying stories about life ‘back home’ if asked.

But that sets up the platform for the hustle – the pressure to match your new and equally fleeced ‘friends’ at payment, that you are being an ‘ignorant foreigner’ for not knowing local customs if you don’t, and that simply, you don’t know any different.

Unless, however, you’ve been lucky enough to read up on it before you go. I almost shied away from writing this and highlighting what I felt was a gullible, stupid mistake I’d made, but I only found out what to do thanks to countless accounts like this one written by others. I can only hope that by putting this online, it will raise more awareness and possibly help someone else avoid the trap. If you’ve already paid out after falling into it, and are reading this after searching for advice, go straight to the police – they were surprisingly helpful for me and are as fed up with the scam as visitors are.

That night, following examples from others who helped me with my decision, and under the cover of darkness, I got some photos of the shop in question. Sadly I didn’t get any pictures of the perpetrators like some have put online – after all, their ‘religion’ stopped me (this again, I’ve since found out, is a common lie)

And so, for anyone visiting Beijing (or Shanghai – its common there too) please, don’t visit this shop – even if the expert and totally believable con-artists doing their dirty work really do offer all the tea in China.

JHH Tea House, Nanchizi Street: Take a bow.

As a footnote to this, once you are aware of the scam, the full scale of the problem becomes clear. Walking through the crowds on the way back from taking these photos, I saw two separate groups of Westerners being led towards ‘Tea Street’ by some new Chinese friends and engaged in conversation. I was then approached no less than six times by different people – men and women – asking if I’m English and could they talk to me. One even brazenly asked if I’d like to go for some ‘authentic Chinese tea’ with her.

“You probably don’t have Yorkshire Gold,” was my reply. It gave me some amusement, left her puzzled and laid a ghost to rest.

Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”

I can laugh about this now, but that’s because I’m one of the lucky ones who fought back and came out of it without any loss. The tea ceremony, as they are known, was actually very enjoyable…and in my case, free. But id recommend going to a legitimate place if you decide to try it. I look back on it as a little bump in this travelling journey – its scrapes like this that make the whole thing a life experience. It’ll go down as one of my traveller stories – but while the Chinese authorities are letting this practice go under the radar, many, many more innocent people will lose vast sums of money, and have holidays and trips of a lifetime ruined.

Hitting a Wall

I quite like being tall. It helps in the supermarket when the only pair of BOGOF biscuits are left on the top shelf. It’s useful at music festivals when you can look over people’s heads to see the band. It’s also quite good when you’re decorating walls and you don’t have to keep using and moving the ladders to paint up to the ceiling.

However, today was not a good day to be tall.

Not happy!

Our bus to the Great Wall of China picked us up at 6am. It was still dark, slightly chilly and far too early. None of us had slept very well as we knew we had to be up at the crack of dawn. We had chosen to go to Jinshanling, a part of the wall that had been recommended as it was only partly renovated so was in ruins in some parts, while it boasted amazing views of the mountains and fewer tourists than other spots. There’s the odd horror story of not being able to move for hawkers and tourists at the popular spot of Badaling, where it has all been repaired and made to look immaculate. To me, that’s not the proper wall, so we shelled out a bit more, around £30 in total, to go somewhere better.

The only problem was its around 170km north of Beijing and takes over three hours to get there, hence the early start. The bus, however, was made for Chinese people, who are, shall we say, quite a bit shorter than people from other parts of the world like Europe…and Grimsby. Therefore, buses in China can be made smaller, but still contain the same number of seats, as little people mean little legs – producing some of the most ridiculously packed in displays of awful leg room I have ever experienced.

So at 6am, facing the prospect of having my knees up to my chin for more than six hours, it was not a good start to the day. Combined with the fact the bus had seen better days and my chair fell off the base every time the driver stamped on the brake – which he did a lot – even the Mcdonalds breakfast provided by the tour driver failed to crack a smile.

Thankfully the bus wasn’t full, so we were able to at least twist ourselves into a slightly more comfortable position, even getting some sleep on the way.

The scenery on the way was great, and there were plenty of glimpses of the Great Wall as we drove through valleys and passed mountain after mountain, arriving at Jinshangling at 10.30am.

The map...and top of our guide

We were shown a map and told there would likely be a few farmers wives following us, trying to sell us souvenirs. It was pointed out that it was a long way to the far end of Jinshangling’s wall, but the better, fitter people might be able to make it. A five windowed tower was pointed out, but there was a warning that we had to be back for lunch at 1.30pm, and the bus left at 2pm.

Naturally, that was seen as a challenge by the blokes, and we set our sights on it.

By now Id started talking to a guy called Justin. He’d been sat in the seat in front of me on the bus, and I’d broken the ice by letting him know he could recline his chair if he wanted to. Justin is originally from the UK, but now lives in San Francisco and works as a computer chip designer in Silicon Valley. We agreed that we’d stick together and help with photos, and along with Santi and Galli, we set off to walk the wall.

French guys...and an army of farmers' wives

We hadn’t got far when we noticed our small group had more than tripled in size. Looking back was like something akin to the Pied Piper, with about 30 older women following us all. We just presumed they’d get fed up after a while and leave us all alone, but we were wrong.

Justin, Santi, Galli and I set an early pace, marching off up the steps to the wall at a decent pace. Then two French guys took over and stole our thunder, but they were welcome to it, there was no way we could keep up the speed! The old dears following, however, could more than keep up.

'I can see the pub from here'

We soon reached the wall, and after a climb up some final steps, soon had a great view of its twists and turns across mountain tops as far as the eye can see. Its only when you get on top of the wall that the full scale of it hits you. To think that it crosses such an enormous distance, and was built so many years ago, is incredible.

The Great Wall

After a few photos, we noticed others had started moving on, and so the wall walk began. We had been warned that this section of the wall was more of a ‘hike’ and only recommended for people who could manage. It started out as a breeze, with nicely paved, and obviously restored, walkways through watch towers and around lookouts.

Gali and Santi on the wall

The weather was perfect for it, with the sun in a great position and distant mountains shrouded in a slight mist. It was the picture postcard image of the wall that I’d seen countless times on travel programmes or in magazines, but nothing prepares for being there in person.

Nothing prepares for the incessant chase by the farmers wives either!

We walked for around half a mile on the restored wall before we started hitting the crumbling ruins, but still they were very passable. Most of our group were still keeping up, and we’d take it in turns to have a quick joke and a smile as we continuously overtook each other, took photos, got overtaken again and so on. There was a really good spirit among everyone.

Part of our group goes ahead

By now, Justin and I had realised there were two women following us, and showed no sign of giving up. We quietly joked between us – not that they would understand – that we had a couple of chaperones desperate for our money. Me being, well, a bit tight, was having none of it. If I wanted a piece of tat or a book about the Great Wall, I’d go to the souvenir shop at the end. Determined to shake them off, we agreed to step up the pace, and were now almost at a slow run.

And still, they kept up.

Steep!

The wall had, by now, hit some incredibly steep bits. After climbing to one watch tower, the wall snakes down into another valley and up an even steeper climb to the next watch tower. At one point, up to the Flower Tower – so called as it had doors and windows made with flower-engraved marble – there was a rise of around 100 particularly steep steps up an almost vertical hillside.

Help!

Our older ‘chaperone’ somehow shot off up them like a rat up a drainpipe, but not wanting to be outdone, I shot up them even faster, overtaking her halfway up and then struggling all the way to the top without stopping, and somehow without passing out.

Suddenly, the warning you had to be fit started to hit home. Our smiling chaperone decided to give me a round of applause and offered the words ‘do you want a book’. I decided against pushing her off the wall.

By now, Gali and Santi had decided to stop. Gali has a dodgy knee, caused by bad shoes apparently, which has messed up his tendons. It’s why they both have rather snazzy wheely suitcases instead of the usual backpacks, as weight on Gali’s back causes more problems. Justin and I said goodbye at one of the towers, and set our sights on the five-windowed tower about a mile away.

Not a bad view to leave Santi and Gali with!

For a moment, our group splitting in two confused the two women, but they quickly decided to give chase. Justin and I walked even faster, but nomatter what we tried or how fast we went to lose them, they would not slow down. While we were gradually losing layers, gasping for air, having breathers and stopping for water, they were breezing it like an evening stroll along Cleethorpes prom.

On the wall

“Be cawfool,” they would say as we crawled our way up and down some of the worst parts of the wall, at some points on our hands and knees among the rocks and boulders which have come loose. By now, time was starting to get on, and we set ourselves a cut-off point of midday, at which point we would turn back.

One of the watchtowers

At 11.30am, we still had a fair way to go, but we could see the tower we were aiming for. It was a good challenge, and it was fun to keep stopping for photos as every twist and turn in the wall revealed more stunning shots.

We made the five-windowed tower with 10 minutes to spare. It meant a well deserved rest and a Snickers.

A break at the top

The two French guys who overtook us at the start were also there – apparently they had walked another kilometre ahead and were already on the way back. They said the view was stunning from the next tower. I told them I was happy with the view from where I was – I couldn’t go any further!

Justin and I at the top of the wall

Justin and I chatted about what our reasons were for travelling at the top. We both sat on the edge of the wall with a fantastic view of it disappearing into the distance. He told me he’d quit his job as he wasn’t getting on with his boss, and so had a few weeks to travel. I told him about Mongolia and the rail journey and he admitted he was tempted to go stay in a yurt!

It was one of those chats that you have and then suddenly pinch yourself. Looking out, it dawned on you that you were sat on top of one of the wonders of the world. It may not, contrary to popular belief, be visible from space, but how on earth this incredible structure was built is baffling. It sits right on the mountain tops, and if it seems hard enough to walk and climb along it, quite how they managed to cart millions of tonnes of rock to the tops of these mountains to build the thing is beyond me.

Quite how the two old dears had managed to stick with us all the way was also beyond me, as they both stood grinning from a doorway.

Our older chaser racing ahead

“We’ll have to give them something at the end. They’ve earned it,” Justin said.

I had to agree. In the pursuit of the tourist Yuan, they were definitely committed. And I was starting to warm to them too, particularly the older one. She had a big toothy grin, and she held onto me as I tried to take a particularly arty shot by hanging over the edge of the wall (It wouldn’t have surprised me if she’s have held on had I fallen either!)

Wildlife on the Wall

Just after midday, we took in our final views from the top of the wall and started the hike back. The two women told us there was a short cut, that seemed to go along an eroded cliff edge.

We decided to stick to the wall ruins, as precarious as they were in places, but sure enough, we soon saw their smiling faces way below us as we slipped and stumbled our way down some loose and slippery steps.

“Be cawfool.”

A wave from our old dear

We were back to the wall entrance well within the time limit – after all, we didn’t want to be some of ‘those’ people that hold the group up! But before we went for lunch, the final sales pitch came from the older woman, brandishing a book full of details about the wall and I have to admit, some particularly good photography.

“Onwee 120 yuan. I’m poor, no food, fwom Mongowia,” she said.

Yes, that is my follower below!

Justin and I had already agreed on the walk back we’d give them something – we’d deliberately waited until the end incase one or both of us slipped and broke a leg, so at least there’d be someone around to help! And we both agreed, although we didn’t ask them to follow us, nor sell us a book, that they had worked bloody hard for the equivalent of £12.

Except I only had 100 Yuan left in my wallet.

Justin bought his without bartering, but I thought I’d try my luck by offering the crisp 100 note.

“No, 120,” she said, flashing me another toothy smile.

The only other notes in my wallet were three US Dollar bills and a 500 Icelandic Krona note, somehow still languishing in there from my work trip the month before. Its a similar size and colour to a Chinese 100 yuan note, but quite simply, useless in the depths of China. My new friend, however, was intrigued. Unsurprisingly, it was the first time she’d seen Icelandic money.

My final offer turned out to be 100 Yuan, three dollars, a pound coin and 500 Icelandic Krona. I managed to avoid offering some scruffy receipts or the shirt off my back. Justin had only known me a few hours, but I could tell he was rolling his eyes!

“Ok, ok,” she said, mercifully.

Aww!

By now we were all laughing together and we all had some photographs. She had quite a sore lip, so Justin gave her a tube of Blistex cream. She didn’t know how to get it out of the tube, so we helped her squeeze it onto her finger. Then I noticed that inside the book, there was a certificate, so I asked her to sign it for me. She laughed, and wrote her name – Leovantin

We walked back towards the café together, and Leovantin was clearly joking with her friend and looking at the Icelandic note. I was busy working out I had paid far more than the asking price of 120 Yuan – not that she would believe me!

Chuffed - and with a lip of Blistex!

Lunch was cold rice and noodles that I couldn’t really stomach, and so we headed to the bus.

Leovantin was waiting for the next group of tourists to arrive. That afternoon she would do the gruelling hike all over again.

A Taste of China

The Forbidden City and Mao's portrait

We’d arrived in Beijing and managed to find our way to the hostel in a hutong close to Tiananmen Square. Red Chinese lanterns dangled gracefully from the ceiling, the smell of spices and sizzling meat wafted through the air. It’s the heart of ‘proper’ Chinese cuisine and we were hungry. So we went to McDonalds.

I know, I know, I’m probably going to get flamed for admitting it as much as one of their rival’s burgers, but the simple fact is we were all craving some ‘normal’ Western food, and for the first time since leaving home, all the familiar eateries were everywhere. It’s a strange juxtaposition looking at the big golden arches of one of America’s iconic restaurants, or the Colonels smiling face shining brightly across the most famous square in China. Capitalism at its best in the most communist of countries.

It was a nice treat however, and as Santi said, it was a taste of home, of something familiar after weeks of totally unfamiliar meals, but we vowed we wouldn’t fall into the trap of living on fast food.

Strange sight of woman dragging a head

So that night we ventured for some Chinese fast food in a typical ‘snack street’, at Wufujing. It was a walk which took in Tiananmen Square and past the entrance to the Forbidden City, with the famous sight of Chairman Mao’s portrait hanging on the wall. Music and dancing fountains entertained the crowds, while scores of police and military prowled the area. The only problem was the fog – visibility wasn’t great, so photographs would have to wait.

Wriggle wriggle

Wanfujing snack street is a market just off the main shopping area in Beijing city centre, complete with all the familiar high street names like H&M, Zara, Nike and even a C&A (Remember them!) Glowing with bright red lanterns, red neon, plenty of friendship shops and sweet stalls, it was a hive of activity – not least from the dozens of scorpions trying to wriggle off sticks.

The pincer movement

Yes, this is one of those places that brings it home how our cultures differ. Its like that HSBC advert that you sometimes see, where the little girl in Cambodia picks some insects on a stick and has them covered in hundreds and thousands. Except on the ad, you don’t see anything moving, nor trying to wriggle off a 15inch kebab stick lodged up its backside.

A (tarantula) leggy blonde

Scorpions, tarantulas, some kind of pupae, starfish, sea horses, snake – you name it, you could find it for sale, and more importantly, you could deep fry it and eat it. Another aspect to all of this is the smell – the aroma of sweet and sour from your local takeaway this was not! When insects are fried, they give off a horrendous stench, one which should, in reality, put people off. But it doesn’t, and many people quite happily wander around chowing down on something that would be one of the worst-ever food challenges on ITV’s I’m A Celebrity.

Deep fried ice cream

Undeterred, despite the stench flipping my stomach from time to time, I knew I had to try something. I found a place selling deep-fried ice cream in little pancakes. It was ok, not what I was expecting though, and basically a bit of milk in a pancake. Next up was a ‘chicken’ skewer. Galli bought these, and we double checked with the man cooking them on the grill.

Santi doesn't look convinced

“Chicken?” we asked. “Yes,” he nodded.

It didn’t taste, or have the texture, of chicken, but if I’m honest again, it was quite nice. It was another bit of mystery meat – it could have been chicken, but then again, it could have been dog or aardvark. We’d never know, and besides, the spices and chilli masked whatever the proper taste was.

Tasty mystery meat

Food sampling done, it was time to head back to the hostel. The metro is surprisingly easy to use, and we were back in no time. We all had a beer before heading to the room, and with 660ml of China’s finest Tsingtao on ice at 5 Yuan – 50p – we could have had a few more, but tiredness was creeping in. It had been a long day after arriving from Mongolia. We went to the room – only to find a smiling Arion sat on the spare bunk bed! Somehow he’d managed to check into the same room as us, which was a shock when we first walked in!

I had planned to spend three days in Beijing, before moving on for a few days in Shanghai and then flying to Bangkok at the weekend, around Sunday 6th November, as I still had to get a visa for Vietnam ready for my organised tour that begins on the 11th of November. My thinking was that I needed a good few days in the Thai capital before the tour started to ensure there was enough time for the visa to be granted and stuck in my passport. But over the last couple of days, I’ve had a brainwave – if there’s a Vietnam consulate in Beijing, I could buy myself some more time in China.

I searched the internet – which is easier said than done in China thanks to all the website blocks and bans – but sure enough there was a visa office for Vietnam at the embassy. Details were sketchy and mainly in Chinese, but there was a map and so the next day, Tuesday, was an admin and visa day.

I got up early – the map showed it was close to a metro station to the west, not too far from where I was staying. Thinking I’d be done within a couple of hours, I left Santi and Galli having a deserved lie-in and said I’d try to meet them for lunch at the hostel.

The weather was foggy yet again – to the point you could hardly see to the other side of Tiananmen Square. I got off the metro at Yong’Anli, and according to the map, I needed to be at 32 Guanghua Road. Except the pin in the online map seemed to be in a different street. With no sign of any embassy, I turned round and walked the other way. Again, no sign. I stopped at a chemists, who all looked at me blankly, while a taxi driver also had no idea what I was saying despite me pointing to the map. Finally, I stumbled across a soldier stood on a box outside a fairly heavily protected building. It was the Sri Lankan embassy, and thankfully, all the other embassies were nearby.

The online map and directions had been completely wrong. I had been searching for almost two hours, but finally found the Vietnamese embassy complete with armed guard at 11.45am. The guard looked at me and motioned that he was hungry, which I thought was a bit odd. And then I saw the sign which gave me the delightful news the office had closed for lunch fifteen minutes prior to my worn-out arrival.

It didn’t open again until 2pm, so I walked around and stumbled across a Starbucks, complete with free wifi. I didn’t have time to head back to the centre of the city, so bought a coffee and made it last as long as I needed to update my blog. China has blocked WordPress, which I use to update my website, but i found a workaround via a downloaded $5 programme – the only problem being its painfully, mind-numbingly slow. Two hours later, and back in the visa office, I joined a queue. It was made up of visa agency staff, each with around 60 Chinese passports to process.

It was 4.40pm by the time I got back to the hostel. Santi and Galli had gone out with the key, so I was locked out too. A little cheesed off with the whole visa shenanigans, I consoled myself with a 50p beer. My first day in Beijing was almost over and I’d managed to see a bit of Vietnam and a big chunk of America in Starbucks.

Any takers?

All was not lost however. Arion used his Chinese skills to find a good place for dinner. It helps when you speak the language, as all the menus are written in it.

Pass me a bucket

He showed us one that’s a typical Beijing noodle dish. It was lovely – thick, well-cooked noodles with a type of soy sauce, and a side order of Kung Po chicken, my favourite takeaway dish back home. It was a winner – really tasty, even the chopsticks were managed by everyone, and to save problems in the future, we cleverly took pictures of the words on the menu so we could simply show them again at future mealtimes.

A 'proper' Chinese!

Following that was desert of some classic street-hawker sugar coated fruit, known as haws,and an early night. We had a trip to the Great Wall booked for the next day, and it meant another 6am start!

These are actually really nice - Crab Apples and Banana in melted sugar

Make your own jokes!